The RSPCA is one of Australia’s most enduring charities, widely respected by governments, industry groups and the general public. The Society’s origins reach back to 1824 when it was established in the United Kingdom to address the horrific treatment of pit ponies in coal mines and to end bear, dog and cock fighting. The work of its founders led to the first real push to legislate to protect the rights of animals.
It’s interesting to note that the push for the first animal welfare organisation came five years before the first professional and centrally organised police organisation; the Metropolitan Police Force which was established in 1829.
Both organisations had the backing of parliament, with powers to investigate and prosecute, and they emerged at around the same time. However, one began and remains a non for profit association that struggles to survive on donations while the other has grown into a major state agency which never seems to lack public funding.
Today there is no debating that animal welfare has improved over the last two centuries, in part through the efforts of the RSPCA, but more often than not, driven by changing community values. However regardless of who is responsible for improved outcomes for animals, the RSPCA has retained the role of lead animal welfare protector with powers similar to those of police to enter, investigate, and prosecute.
By all accounts the RSPCA sits outside the norms of modern government; it is a non-state actor that has incredible responsibilities, unusual powers and acts as an administrator, protector, educator, and compliance officer. From a quirk of history, it has been able to remain separate from the normal checks and balances of constitutional government, avoiding daily oversight by ministers, departments, and parliament.
No other comparable organisation has such authority. State agencies with oversight for the protection of children, environment, fisheries, prisoners, borders, traffic, aviation, you name it, all sit directly within the daily control of government. What other part of the community do we entrust to a not-for-profit organisation with such extraordinary powers?
Wind back time to 1824 – if the first Metropolitan Police Force had already been established and given powers to prosecute animal abuse before the RSPCA came about, I doubt such authority would have been handed to a group of civic minded volunteers looking to protect animals.
Today across Australia we have an estimated 25 million pets, one for every person in the country along with tens of millions of livestock that all effectively come under the powers of the various state and territory RSPCA’s. But despite the huge numbers and complexity of animal welfare issues, every state chapter of the organisation suffers from limited funding, confused powers, compromised values, and underpaid, under-skilled staff, meaning they are overwhelmed by the scale of responsibilities they carry.
The RSPCA has the powers to enter properties and seize animals but not the resources to prosecute drawn-out court cases. Wealthy and litigious widows often referred to as cat ladies, are often willing to spend their kids’ inheritance on QCs to get their multitude of moggies back from the claws of the RSPCA. It’s happened before and will happen again.
Despite the financial demands on the organisation of running their compliance programs and housing the 1804 animals they seized in 2018, plus a raft of education responsibilities, the state government offered them just $619,000 in funding support.
For context, that’s enough to put just 4 department of agriculture staff on the road doing livestock compliance work around the state. It’s not cheap to employ skilled professional people who can address complex issues in far flung stations, but you get what you pay for, in the case of the department its people who understand livestock.
The RSPCA is suffering from serious funding issues because the society is almost entirely reliant on voluntary donations, with less than 6% of its annual income coming from the state government. Drumming up donations means they are forced to run campaigns and cry wolf regularly and loudly, with pictures of malnourished horses and abused dogs (but not cattle on some select stations), and, all too often, demands to end live exports.
In its desperate search for funding, the RSPCA has even gone the length of selling their soul by offering their brand to corporates in the food production business. The RSPCA Free Range brand is fine so long as they define free range and are prepared to stand behind every aspect of the welfare of the animals that help sell their products. If anything goes wrong with their contract grower’s they risk everything their 200 year old brand name stands for. Rightly or wrongly, it places the RSPCA in a difficult position.
The reality is with limited funds they cannot afford to employ highly qualified and experienced staff with the skills and expertise to undertake all the work they are legally empowered to do. Investigating farms, intensive livestock operations, and processing facilities requires specialised skills just ask the vets who work for the department of agriculture.
Too few of the RSPCA’s inspection officers are qualified veterinarians or animal science graduates. They lack the background to understand the complex array of industry codes of practice that the commercial sector operates under. All the RSPCA requires for an activist animal lover to become an inspector is a passion for animals, a drivers licence, police clearance and to undertake a certificate level training course.
This is a direct result of the RSPCA’s funding woes. This is not to say that the community is not a generous donator, but the WA chapter of the RSPCA had a budget of just $10.1m last year and from that they ran a deficit of $1.4m. They are in deep financial trouble.
Despite all the care, donations and efforts of the Society’s 1655 volunteers and millions in funding the organisation only managed to complete 11 prosecutions in 2019, achieving just 6 forfeitures involving a total of 60 animals. It’s hard to believe that this was but a scratch on the extent of serious animal welfare breeches across the entire state.
If the WA Police force, with their 9000 staff, had sole responsibility for animal welfare, I suspect there would be far more activity in this space than we currently see from the RSPCA. In many cases the police are dealing with the same dysfunctional individuals who have problems with the law and problems with animal cruelty. But their core responsibility lies with protection families and children not animals.
Looking at the facts, and not the emotional bond the community has with the RSPCA, any fair-minded person would conclude that something must change. A state the size of Western Australia means many of our remote and regional communities would rarely see an RSPCA inspector. This is despite what we know are major issues that occur far from the concerned eyes of the western suburbs who are often the strongest supporters of charitable organisations.
For all the care we profess to have we have ended up with a city based, companion-animal focused organisation that just does not have the resources or volunteers to keep up with the growing number of animals or changing community expectations around animal welfare across the state.
Quite simply, the model is broken.
With the current state-wide review being undertaken into animal welfare, we must also consider the role and responsibility of the RSPCA. The organisation is an integral part of our community and plays a vital role in animal welfare, but the times have moved on. We need to discuss frankly if the RSPCA is up to the task it has inherited.
The first thing that should happen is a review into WA’s various organisations with responsibility related to animal welfare, to see just how much funding is needed to protect animals across the state. Following this roles and responsibilities should be clarified. The Department of Agriculture, which already holds the core responsibility for managing commercial livestock and is well respected by industry, should be tasked with the sole carriage of all complaints, compliance, and prosecution in the commercial space.
This review should happen before the McGowan’s governments animal activist ministers legislate their plan to create a new form of ‘animal rights designated inspector’. A inspector that will have the unfettered right to wander around farms looking for fault. Being too clever by half these ministers have linked these changes to the bill to increase penalties on activists that invade farms. When it comes to a vote the whole bill should be dumped rather than allow these changes to be turned into law.
The bill comes with no attached regulations that would guarantee any new inspectors are fully qualified livestock professionals, nothing about due cause or a warrant needed like the police have to gain entry to a farm, nothing even to say they cannot be appointed from members of Direct Action Everywhere.
Before the government gives out more powers to unnamed individuals it should start from scratch and ensure the Department of Agriculture is properly resourced to do the work of overseeing the 14 million sheep, 2 million cattle and all the pigs, chicken, race horses etc that make up the commercial livestock sector. At a minimum the government should double their numbers in the Department. The better the compliance and oversight of poor operators the greater the social license dividend for the commercial sector as a whole.
In turn the RSPCA should focus solely on its companion animal work and receive contract funding at the same level it would cost the state to do this work. For example, the Department of Fisheries compliance section has over 120 officers, including 8 mobile patrol vehicles on the road 24/7 in the regions all funded by a budget of $25m. It’s hard to imagine that our land based animals across the state deserve so few taxpayer dollars in comparison to the fish.
As a industry we should support the RSPCA to be properly funded, $10 million would double their current funding and ensure far better welfare protection of the State’s companion animals. In addition, the Society needs an infrastructure review to ensure they have the shelters across the regions, not just in Perth. We cannot leave them to focus on the Perth Metropolitan area and ignore real issues in remote parts of WA.
Such a policy shift would come at a total cost of around $20m pa but if the state government and the community is serious about animal welfare, we need to fork out. It’s time to overhaul an approach that was born nearly 200 years ago and has not kept up with a changing world.